I’ve lived for ~4 months in Saigon and 1 month in Manila (BGC) as a digital nomad. I’ve also stayed in 15 other cities in Asia. Today let’s look at how these two big cities compare, and which might be a better choice for you.
Keep in mind: I’m a single male American digital nomad in his 30s. I don’t speak Vietnamese or Tagalog. I like big cities. I don’t drink alcohol or partake in much nightlife. All of this affects how I view both Saigon and Manila.
Overview: Living in Manila vs Saigon
Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City) and Manila are both “mega cities” in Southeast Asia—so they have a fair amount in common. The climate is similar, and they’re both relatively cheap compared to America. But there are also big differences.
Saigon is the “bigger” city in terms of population, but Manila is far more developed when it comes to skyscrapers and such. Overall, they both have big city energy with lots of amenities and shopping and restaurant options.
So far, I’ve only stayed in Bonifacio Global City (BGC) in Manila. BGC and Makati are the two main parts of Metro Manila where expats and nomads tend to stay.
In Saigon, I’ve stayed in D1, D2, D4, and Bình Thạnh, so I’ve gotten more of a sampling of living in different areas—but all were pretty near “downtown” (D1).
Comparing Saigon with BGC, I found these 3 advantages of living in Saigon:
That said, there was still one strong benefit of living in Manila:
Let’s cover each of these points in more depth below. I’ll share many personal stories and pictures along the way.
Why Saigon Is Better
Saigon is one of my favorite cities in the world for living. So, it’s no surprise that Saigon beats Manila overall in my view. But here are 3 of the specific reasons for it.
1. Lower Cost of Living
One of the main reasons people move to Southeast Asia is the low living costs. Vietnam and the Philippines are both affordable, but not all cities cost the same.
Manila is actually one of the pricier major cities in Southeast Asia, especially if you don’t count Singapore. Rent and hotel prices in Manila tend to be higher than in Saigon.
According to Numbeo, rent prices in Makati, Manila, are about 69% higher than in Ho Chi Minh City. And that makes sense with my experience in BGC, as well.
I usually pay around $30 to $50 per night for nice studio apartments or 1-bedroom units in tall condo buildings in Saigon. But similar places in BGC, Manila, cost me roughly $45 to $80 per night.
Apart from rent or hotel costs, Saigon may also be cheaper when it comes to taxis, restaurants, and more. Numbeo reports 35% cheaper restaurants in Saigon, compared to Makati.
On the whole, most people will find living in Saigon to be cheaper.
2. Faster and More Reliable Internet
The hardest thing about the Philippines for digital nomads is finding reliable internet. You might think that in Manila’s nicest neighborhoods, the internet would be good—but it’s not always the case.
I tried four Airbnbs in BGC, Manila, and only one had decent, consistent internet. The wifi was slow or kept disconnecting in most places I stayed. Sometimes, I had to watch YouTube at very low resolution (144p) to prevent buffering.
On the other hand, my Internet has been better in Saigon. My internet connections at my Airbnbs, cafes, and other places are usually reliable.
Some news stories reported slower Internet in Vietnam in early 2023, due to cable faults. However, as of mid-2023, I’ve been staying for many months in Saigon, and the Internet is definitely better than what I experienced in Manila.
Especially if you have to regularly make video calls, living in Manila could be quite frustrating—unless you are able to invest in an unusually good connection there. Don’t expect your average Manila Airbnb to have reliable wifi.
3. Better Transportation
Big cities often have bad traffic, and that’s certainly true of Metro Manila. But I’ve actually found that Saigon’s traffic is not too bad—at least not in terms of gridlock traffic jams.
The traffic in Saigon is mostly motorbikes, and I think this reduces the traffic congestion, compared to all the cars in Manila.
In my experience, it’s also much easier to quickly order a ride in Saigon. The Grab app is very cheap and fast in Saigon. But there were a few times in Manila when I had trouble hailing a taxi or finding a ride quickly.
To be fair, maybe I didn’t stay in Manila long enough to fully understand the transportation system. But the Grab app is just so cheap and fast in Saigon (the fastest of anywhere I’ve used it yet), it would be hard to beat.
So I feel pretty confident saying the transportation is better in Saigon than Manila.
Why Manila Is Better
Despite all the reasons to prefer Saigon above, there’s one factor in which Manila surely wins.
1. More English Is Spoken
Besides Singapore, the Philippines has the best English proficiency in Asia. Education First ranks the Philippines “High proficiency” in English, while Vietnam has a ranking of “Moderate proficiency.” (source)
In fact, English is an official language in the Philippines. So, most expats will have an easier time talking to taxi drivers, restaurant workers, and landlords in Manila. It also helps in forming genuine connections with locals.
Don’t misunderstand me—you can still live comfortably in Saigon without learning Vietnamese. Many foreigners do it. But you’ll have more miscommunications and language mixups compared to Manila.
Fluent English can also make your social life in the Philippines a bit easier.
For example, while both Manila and Saigon have great potential for dating, Manila is arguably better, because there is no language barrier between you and the entire local population.
[Related Post: The 7 Most Fluent English Speaking Countries in Asia]
All in all, I like Saigon a lot more than Manila—and it seems many people agree, considering the relative popularity of the two cities for expats and nomads.
However, Manila could still be a fantastic place to live, particularly if you have a special connection with Filipino culture.